FUKUSHIMA, Japan – Technicians prepared to vent radioactive gas into the air today because of a new spike in pressure at Japan’s crippled, leaking nuclear complex, while a safety official said protective iodine pills should have been distributed near the plant days earlier.
Radiation, a danger for days in areas around the plant, already has seeped into the food supply, with the government warning that tests of spinach and milk from areas as far as 75 miles away exceeded safety limits. Tap water farther away turned up tiny amounts of radioactive iodine in Tokyo and other areas.
Amid concerns of wider contamination, a nuclear safety official said the government was caught off guard by the accident’s severity and only belatedly realized the need to give potassium iodide to those living within 12 miles of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.
The pills help reduce the chances of thyroid cancer, one of the diseases that may develop from radiation exposure. The official, Kazuma Yokota, said an explosion at the plant’s Unit 3 reactor last Sunday should have triggered the distribution. But the order only came three days later.
“We should have made this decision and announced it sooner,” Yokota told reporters at the emergency command center in Fukushima. “It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad.”
While four of Fukushima’s six nuclear reactors have been dangerously overheating since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disrupted cooling systems, Unit 3 has proved particularly troublesome.
After the government said Saturday that the unit appeared to be stabilizing, nuclear safety officials said pressure was rising again inside the reactor’s containment vessel, requiring a release of radioactive gas to prevent a more dangerous buildup, said safety official Hidehiko Nishiyama.
Japan’s police agency says more than 8,000 people are dead and more than 12,000 are listed as missing.